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How to spark the next generation of university buildings


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Type ‘Brutalism’ into Twitter’s search box and you’ll find a wealth of feeds celebrating this architectural style. It will probably never be loved universally, but there is certainly a growing appreciation for Brutalism in the air.

The 1960s call to expand higher education was met with an explosion of confidence in architecture never seen in the sector before or since. Feats of construction, design and engineering were accomplished, seemingly without any of the usual concerns about offending anyone. The result was a series of new and expanded universities that provided never-before-seen environments for higher education that aimed to truly reflect modernity and inspire exciting, new thinking.

​This golden age of university building in Britain saw the construction of architectural classics that gained recognition worldwide. These include the University of Essex, whose heroically Brutalist campus is set in the refined surroundings of Wivenhoe Park. The campus provides accommodation for around 50% of its students in what were for a long time the tallest load-bearing brick towers in Europe.

Lucy Homer, Managing Director SCAPE Principal Works, Lendlease

The university’s architect Kenneth Capon had a fantastically fresh vision for the student experience. As opposed to contemplating dreaming spires, he wanted to offer students ‘something fierce to let them work within.’ He saw Essex University as a British MIT, serving the ‘military-industrial-political complex’, albeit with a liberal ethos.

At the University of East Anglia (UAE), the eminent, modernist architect Denys Lasdun boldly reimagined student accommodation as part of a plan for a campus that brought all the university’s functions close together. Best known for designing the Royal National Theatre – recently comprehensively refurbished by Lendlease - Ladsun’s halls for UAE in the form of stunning ziggurats are now Grade II listed.

The University of Durham’s concrete Dunelm House, meanwhile, is set by the riverside amid trees. Designed by Architects’ Co-Partnership and Ove Arup, the building exudes traditional dignity combined with modernism. It’s no surprise that there is a campaign to list it. Leicester University’s factory-like Engineering Faculty on the other hand received its Grade II* listing in 2003. Designed by Stirling and Gowan and also recently refurbished by Lendlease, it is rightly regarded as one of the most influential buildings to come out of the ‘60s.

The common thread linking all ‘plate-glass’ university buildings was a boldness of approach that ignored precedents and aspired to be as forward-thinking as possible. The current influx of spending into university estates could support a second wave of innovation.

Where should the second wave start? The next generation of university buildings should undoubtedly cater for the latest trends in the job market: employers require graduates who are entrepreneurial, tech-savvy, collaborative and socially-conscious.

Lucy Homer, Managing Director SCAPE Principal Works, Lendlease

The new wave of university buildings must also do all possible to attract and retain students. As AUDE’s recent Jellybean Learning report explains, for ‘digitally dependent’ Generation Z students this means reflecting advances in artificial intelligence, internet connectivity and augmented reality.

AUDE is also forecasting that universities will co-locate with businesses, explore innovative partnerships with organisations and draw on smart building technology.

New university buildings would therefore do well to take inspiration from the large tech companies, whose approach to workplace is so famously pioneering. Our work with clients such as Facebook and Google focuses on creating tech-enabled, flexible environments that support agile working, promote collaboration and spark fresh ideas. This is seeing us construct workspaces designed to encourage you to meet and collaborate, spaces that offer abundant natural light and which provide links to green space to foster wellbeing and creativity.

By following the pioneering example of the tech sector, then, higher education could see a second wave of construction and design excellence that positions universities once again as truly forward-facing.


Lucy Homer 0001

Written by:

Lucy Homer
Managing Director SCAPE Principal Works